Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More

Born: 7th February 1478 in Milk Street, London.

Died: 6th July 1535, executed at the Tower of London

Resting Place: Body buried in a common grave at St Peter ad Vincula Chapel, Tower of London, and head said to be buried in the Roper Vault at St Dunstan’s Church, Canterbury.

Family Background: Son of Sir John More (c.1451-1530), lawyer and judge on the King’s Bench, and Agnes Graunger (d.1499), daughter of Thomas Graunger, a Merchant of the Staple of Calais and an Alderman of London.

Education: Firstly St Anthony’s School, then from 1491 More joined the household of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, then he studied at the University of Oxford. More studied Latin and logic before studying law in London.

Influences: Met and became friends with William Lilye, John Colet and Erasmus while at university.

Early Career: Between 1499 and 1503, More stayed at the Carthusian priory, London Charterhouse, while he considered joining the order. He also considered becoming a Franciscan monk but decided to devote himself to the law after he realised that a life of celibacy did not suit him. More became a Member of Parliament in 1504, an undersheriff of the City of London in 1510, a Master of Requests in 1514, one of the King’s counsellors in 1517 and then a Privy Counsellor in 1518.

Later Career: In 1521, Thomas More was knighted and made undertreasurer after proving himself by carrying out a diplomatic mission to Charles V with Cardinal Wolsey. He rose in influence as the King’s personal secretary and adviser, became Speaker of the House of Commons in 1523 and then the High Steward of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. He was appointed the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1525. In 1529, More was made Lord Chancellor after the fall of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

Scholarly Work: History of King Richard III (unfinished but written 1512-18 and said to have influenced William Shakespeare’s Richard III, Utopia (published in 1516) – an account of a fictional island society and its social, political and religious customs. The book contrasted the chaos of Europe with the ordered life in Utopia where there was religious toleration, communal ownership of land and education for all. Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (1521)- helped Henry VIII write this defence of the Catholic Church and the Seven Sacraments. Responsio ad Lutherum – A counter-response to Luther’s reply to the Assertio. Dialogue (1528) – A book against the writings of Tyndale. Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer (1532) – A six volume work in repy to Tyndale’s An Answer Unto Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue. A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation (1534) – written while imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Spouse: First wife Jane (or Joanna/Joan) Colt (died in 1511). More immediately married Alice Middleton, a widow with money.

Children: More had four children by his first wife – 1) Margaret (Meg) More (1504-1544) who married William Roper in 1521 and had 5 children. 2) Elizabeth More (1506-1564) who married William Daunce in 1525 and had 7 children. 3) Cecily More (1507-?) who married Giles Heron in 1525 and had 3 children. 4) John More II (1509-1547) who married Anne Cresacre in 1529 and had eight children. Thomas More also raised Alice’s daughter from her first marriage as his own. Thomas More went againts convention and gave all of his daughters a top quality classical education.

Study for the Family Portrait of Thomas More by Holbein

Study for the Family Portrait of Thomas More by Holbein

Religious Views: Even though Thomas More decided that life as a monk did not suit him, he wore a hair shirt on a daily basis and was said to practise flagellation.

More and the Reformation: Sir Thomas More supported the Catholic Church, which he saw as the true faith, and campaigned against the Reformation and heresy. His actions against the Reformation included helping Cardinal Wolsey to prevent the importation of Lutheran books into England, producing scholarly works against Luther’s writings and persecuting people who he perceived as heretics.

Fall and Death: In 1530 Sir Thomas More refused to sign a letter asking the Pope to annul the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. He offers his resignation in 1531 but the King refuses only to relent in 1532 when More claims that he is having chest pains and is ill – More does not agree with Henry VIII becoming the head of the church in England. In 1533, More did not attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn and this was seen as a snub and Henry VIII is forced to act against More. In summer 1533, Thomas Cromwell launches an investigation into More’s activities and in February 1534 More is linked with Elizabeth Barton, “the holy maid of Kent” and accused of conspiring with her against the King. More writes to the King and Cromwell pleading his case and affirming his loyalty to the King and manages to escape trial.

After refusing to take the Oath of Succession, promising to uphold the Act of Succession (which declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon null and void and established a new line of succession through the King and Anne Boleyn), Sir Thomas More was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London on 17th April, 1534. Sir Thomas More was tried for high treason on 1st July 1535 and even though More believed that he could not be convicted because he had never spoken out against the King or denied his headship of the Church, Richard Rich (the Solicitor General) testified that More had, in his presence, denied that the King was head of the Church. It was also decided that More’s silence was evidence of “a corrupt and perverse nature”.

Sir Thomas More was found guilty under the Treason Act of 1534. Between the jury verdict and sentencing, Sir Thomas More took the opportunity to speak out and declared that “no temporal man may be the head of spirituality”. More was then sentenced to be hanged until “half dead”, then disemboweled and burned. A few days later, King Henry VIII commuted More’s sentence to death by beheading.
Here is an account of Sir Thomas More’s execution on the 6th July 1535 from A Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceeding Upon Impeachments for High Treason, etc (London, 1719), cited at http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/FTrials/more/moretrialreport.html :-

“About Nine he was brought out of the Tower; his Beard was long, his face pale and thin, and carrying a Red Cross in his Hand, he often lift up his Eyes to Heaven; a Woman meeting him with a cup of Wine, he refused it saying, Christ at his Passion drank no wine, but Gall and Vinegar. Another Woman came crying and demanded some Papers she said she had left in his Hands, when he was Lord Chancellor, to whom he said, Good woman, have Patience but for an Hour and the King will rid me of the Care I have for those Papers, and every thing else. Another Woman followed him, crying, He had done her much Wrong when he was Lord Chancellor, to whom he said, I very well remember the Cause, and is I were to decide it now, I should make the same Decree.

When he came to the Scaffold, it seemed ready to fall, whereupon he said merrily to the Lieutenant, Pray, Sir, see me safe up; and as to my coming down, let me shift for myself. Being about to speak to the People, he was interrupted by the Sheriff, and thereupon he only desired the People to pray for him, and bear Witness he died in the Faith of the Catholic Church, a faithful Servant both to God and the King. Then kneeling, he repeated the Miserere Psalm with much Devotion; and, rising up the Executioner asked him Forgiveness. He kissed him, and said, Pick up thy Spirits, Man, and be not afraid to do thine Office; my Neck is very short, take heed therefore thou strike not awry for having thine Honesty. Laying his Head upon the Block, he bid the Executioner stay till he had put his Beard aside, for that had commit­ted no Treason. Thus he suffered with much Cheerfulness; his Head was taken off at one Blow, and was placed upon London-Bridge, where, having continued for some Months, and being a­bout to be thrown into the Thames to make room for others, his Daughter Margaret bought it, in­ closed it in a Leaden Box, and kept it for a Relique. Hall’s Chron. Vol. 2. S. 2.”

Legacy: Sir Thomas More was beatified in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII and then canonised along with John Fisher on the 19th May 1935 by Pope Pius XI. In 1970, More and Fisher were added to the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints and given the 22nd June as their feast day. In 1980, Sir Thomas More and John Fisher were added to the Anglican Calendar of Saints and Heroes of the Christian Church and given 6th July as a celebratory day. In 2000, Pope John Paul II declared that Sir Thomas More was “the heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians.”

In The History of the English Speaking Countries Winston Churchill wrote of More:-

“The resistance of More and Fisher to the royal supremacy in Church government was a noble and heroic stand. They realised the defects of the existing Catholic system, but they hated and feared the aggressive nationalism which was destroying the unity of Christendom. … More stood as the defender of all that was finest in the medieval outlook. He represents to history its universality, its belief in spiritual values and its instinctive sense of other-worldliness. Henry VIII with cruel axe decapitated not only a wise and gifted counsellor, but a system, which, though it had failed to live up to its ideals in practice, had for long furnished mankind with its brightest dreams.”

and G.K. Chesterton wrote that More was the “greatest historical character in English history”.

Places: Institutions named after Sir Thomas More include The Thomas More Building at the Royal Courts of Justice at The Strand in London, The Thomas More Society: the politics society of Magdalen College, Oxford and the Thomas More Chambers in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London.

Historic places associated with Sir Thomas More include: Westminster Hall at the Palace of Westminster, where there is a floor plaque commemorating More’s trial which took place in the original building; Crosby Hall, a privately owned reconstruction of More’s original Thames-side home; Chelsea Old Church whose southern chapel was commissioned by More and which contains the tomb and epitaph which More erected for himself and his wives; Tower Hill, Tower of London, where More was executed; St Peter ad Vincula Chapel, Tower of London, where More’s body was buried; St Dunstan’s Church Canterbury, which is home to the Roper vault where More’s daughter, Margaret Roper, buried More’s head; and Our Lady Queen of Martyrs and St Ignatius Catholic Church in Chideock, Dorset, which claims to have More’s hair shirt as a relic.

The Family of Sir Thomas More by Rowland Lockey after Hans Holbein the Younger

The Family of Sir Thomas More by Rowland Lockey after Hans Holbein the Younger

Saint Thomas More

In a moving article entitled “St Thomas More: A Man For This Season”, Deacon Keith Fournier quotes Pope John Paul II as saying of More:-

“Precisely because of the witness which he bore, even at the price of his life, to the primacy of truth over power, Saint Thomas More is venerated as an imperishable example of moral integrity. And even outside the Church, particularly among those with responsibility for the destinies of peoples, he is acknowledged as a source of inspiration for a political system which has as its supreme goal the service of the human person.”

and Fournier writes of how Sir Thomas More stood up for his faith and his beliefs:-

“This champion of heroic courage in the face of a State which has lost its soul never wavered in his fidelity to the Truth. He would not betray the truth or compromise it on the altar of public opinion or for political opportunism. He knew that to do so would not only have dishonored God and led his family and so many others astray, but that it would have given tacit assent to the emerging despotism of his age.

Thomas More was brought to trial for his fidelity to the Truth. Oh, as is always the case with persecution against Christians, it was framed as a charge against the “positive law”. There, this outstanding lawyer defended the Truth for which he would later give his life.”

Fournier then goes on to quote More himself, from an inscription in his Book of Hours:-

“Give me your grace, good Lord, to set the world at naught…to have my mind well united to you; to not depend on the changing opinions of others…so that I may think joyfully of the things of God and tenderly implore his help. So that I may lean on God’s strength and make an effort to love him… So as to thank Him ceaselessly for his benefits; so as to redeem the time I have wasted…”

Conclusion

Although I cannot agree with Sir Thomas More’s persecution of people he perceived to be heretics, I admire his courage, his unshakable faith, his honour and his desire to see a Utopian society. He knew what disagreeing with the King could lead to but he put his faith and his God first.

Sources

20 Responses to “Sir Thomas More”

  1. julie b says:

    I did not realize that his children were from his first wife and not Alice.

    I get the same thought about Sir Thomas More whenever I hear about him, and after reading your “conclusion”, Claire, you summed it up for me.
    I want to like him because of his strong faith and he seemed to have been a nice father, but the fact that he persecuted so many people makes me have a negative feeling toward him. Didn’t he have hundreds of people burned at the stake?
    That doesn’t sound very Christian to me, murdering people so brutally.

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    MC Reply:

    No he did not have hundreds of people burned at the stake. The official number is 4 or 6 — a far cry from ‘hundreds’. By all accounts he tried hard to save those lives as well.

    What you need to remember also is that the heresy laws were not his laws but the laws of the country. It was his job as Chancellor to enforce the law. And heresy was regarded at the time as just as serious as treason, perhaps more so because it endangered immortal souls.

    So feel free to admire More. In a violent age he was remarkably non-violent.

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    Judith Reply:

    The names of Thomas More’s victims were:

    1. Thomas Hitton
    2. Richard Bayfield
    3. John Tewkesbury
    4. James Bainham
    5. Thomas Bilney

    If you want more information all of them have Wikipedia entries except for John Tewkesbury, eg: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Hitton

    William Tyndale’s biographer Brian Moynahan also put forward a theory that it was Thomas More who organised Tyndale’s arrest and execution. So there could be six.

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    BanditQueen Reply:

    6 is a very small number and one of thes men actually died of ill health before getting to his trial. It was Henry who arranged Tyndale’s betrayal and he was hunted down by both the German authorities and a man called Phillips who betrayed him to his enemies. Sir Thomas More had to enforce the heresy laws, but he did also hate heretical beliefs and books and had many burnt on the orders of the King. When it came to the people accused of heretical practices he tried to save them and convert them with gentler means than he could have done. These gentlemen named above where repeated offenders and it was for the most serious of lapsed heresy and on a third offence that the death penalty could be enforced. It was not a personal crusade against heretics, it was part of the age in which he lived.

    We cannot judge the actions of Thomas More or anyone else from the 16th century by the hypocritical ‘we know better’ standards of the 21st century. Most people were raised to believe the same things as More was and it was part of their world. In England things were not as bad as in Europe: it was a common site having heretical offenders burnt and strangled at the stake for offending the Laws of God. Luther encouraged the Emperor Charles V to send his army to put down the Peasants Revolt in Germany against the first Protestants and wrote to congratulate the Emperor for a job well done. Even in Edward’s time 16 people were burnt at the stake. We look to the terrible example of Mary Tudor as our focal point when thinking of heretical dealings and punishment of offenders, but this was an extreme example as it was in such a short period of time. Had it been over a longer period or on the Continent then her rule and actions would not have been condemned. Heresy was a capital offense and as the man who had to prosecute those who practised it Thomas More had to enforce those laws. Unfortunately from time to time that included the death penalty.

    Whatever our views on Thomas More as occasional prosecuter of heretical offenders, we can only be amazed at his ultimate courage when he himself was prosecuted for the belief that the Holy Father and not King Henry was the Head of the Church on Earth and in the Catholic Church was the ultimate truth. For being prepared to die as a martyr and his defense o his faith in a public trial he should be praised. It was a shameful loss to England and to the world of the scholar that More was executed. It was also a loss to King Henry although he did not admit it publically as he had lost a great friend and honest advisior. his death was to send shock waves around Europe.

    BanditQueen Reply:

    Thomas More did not have hundreds of people burnt at the stake: 5 were condemned by him, some others did penance and some went to prison but that was the law. Heresy was a capital offense if the person persisted or repeated the offences. There are many fine books about Thomas More that can educate you about him, his times and his belief. I recommend that you read one of them.

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  2. GregY says:

    alas, we are judging people in the 16th century by 21st century standards.
    Heresy was a capital crime in Greece, Rome as well–and not without reason, as upstart religious sects not uncommonly led to wholesale wa.r Not trying to defend everything here, just saying, you can’t judge people by modern standards. I think if the Reformation were only a religious issue, More would not have resorted to such extreme measures. Read about the Peasant’s Rebellion in Luther’s Germany or the Albigensians (Cathars) and you can see why monarchs and Church-men would have been concerned to the point of executing those they considered to be ‘heretics.’ Plus they saw themselves as responsible before God for the souls of those in their kingdom. Just offering some food for thought.

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  3. The War of the Roses would have still been going on in More’s youth and he would have heard stories of atrocities throughout his childhood. He feared that religious wars would tear England apart. That said, his stand on the treatment of heretics is lamentable. It’s hard to know exactly how much persecuting More actually did; Fox tried to blacken his name with tales of torture chambers in More’s home which hardly seem credible. As Lord Chancellor, however, More was responsible for implementation sentences that included death by burning.

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  4. Cynthia Layne says:

    It was shocking to the rest of Europe that a man of the intellectual stature and accomplishments of Thomas More should have been executed by Henry VIII. Such audacity, even by one of the world’s ‘great’ tyrants, was seen as almost beyond belief.
    Many felt that if Henry could execute a man like More, there would be no depths to which he would not sink.
    According to the logic of the law, More should have been ‘safe’ by his silence – for the maxim of the law was that ‘silence gives consent’. As More himself said at his trial, “God knoweth how” the court could find him guilty.

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  5. Courtney says:

    i had a renasiance project and this was very important

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    Courtney Reply:

    helpful

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  6. Brenda Ann says:

    I work at a Catholic Hospital in the United States named “St. Thomas More” Hospital. Such a remarkable man. I know Showtime Networks the “Tudors” isn’t all historcally correct, but anything Tudor related is absolutely fascinating to me :) Great Website! I love reading the articles about Anne and all those involved with the Tudor Dynasty.

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  7. BanditQueen says:

    Because Saint Thomas More would not say outright his reasons for not accepting the oath of Henry as Supreme Head of the Church it seems to me that the Council, Thomas Cromwell and the KIng moved the goalposts in order to convict Him of treason. Although Henry tried everything to save More he needed More’s oath above anyone else as he was very well thought of amongst ordinary people. Where Sir Thomas went ot what he did others would follow. More was a champion of the law and a clever expert in legal arguments; if he found that the Oath was sound and could swear to it then Henry hoped this would mean that others inclined to object may change their minds. His refusal to take the Oath and his refusal to say what he believed about the divorce and so on could easily be seen as him trying to influence others to also refuse the Oaths. (If Sir Thomas More thinks there is something wrong with it then there must be)

    The strange conversation with Richard Rich in the Tower was the key to his conviction. It was meant to be a hypothetical question and debate: off the record if you will, but Rich used it against him, twisted it around and committed perjury. But Sir Thomas was quite correct: Henry did not have the right to call himself Head of the Church and was assuming a title that belonged to the Pope; as descendent of Saint Peter; conferred on him by Christ himself. More believed this and that Henry was acting against the Law of God that he claimed to uphold. Henry had even changed his Coronation Oath retrospectively to include the Supremacy. Henry had also collected togethr all sorts of histories and books to give weight to his title and his divorce and give backing to his claim to be Supreme Head. The Act declared that our island was an Empire and as an Emperor Henry would not be answer to any other power besides God. Thomaa More and Saint John Fisher could not accept any of this.

    More was one of the great scholars of his day and it was a pity that he was forced into this situation. The Commission tried to twist his intentions and his words even falsely accusing him of forcing the King to write the Defence of the Seven Sacraments in 1521 in which he denounced the Lutheran heresy and praised the Holy Father, against his will. This More denied and claimed it was Henry who had convinced him of the importance of the papacy and the book was the Kings work and he wrote it freely, although More had advised him upon it. Recall that King Henry was interested in theology and had at one time been destined for the Church. He had a deep and genuine religious faith and he debated and wrote much upon religious matters. With all this background it was vital that More accept the Kings titles and the Treasons Act 1534 condemned him if he did not. It was a great loss to England when More and Fisher were arrested and executed, but again the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

    I honestly believe that Henry was troubled about the prospect of having to execute More; as he had been his teacher and they shared much together. There is some evidence that he regretted the execution and blamed it on Anne Boleyn. But in the end Henry was in charge and he could have left More to retire and live in peace in his home down the river. Anne of course was not responsible for More’s death, Henry was; but it was one of the many tragic consequences of their passionate and turbulant lives together.

    Saint Thomas More pray for us. Saint John Fisher pray for us. Both holy martyrs against a background of turning England upside down.

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  8. iwardi says:

    Basically, if you are Catholic, you will support More. if not, then you will have doubts. I’m a believer that sees God and Jesus Christ as greater than any man, and the Pope is NOT no freaking descendent of Peter, thats preposterous, are you telling me The Pope is Jewish? Absurd, as absurd to even think More is worth following, save his example of being another self righteous asshole.

    cheers

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  9. Gayle McMartin Hulme says:

    One thing is clear to me from all of the above events…that religion causes more mayhem than anything else in the world

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  10. Karie Schneider says:

    More advocated BURNING of heretics. He reaped what he had sown.

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    Claire Reply:

    To be fair, and this is in no way condoning the burning of people seen as heretics, it wasn’t just More and he was, of course, backed by the King. As John Guy points out in his article on More on the History Today website, More believed that “Heresy was a poisonous cancer eating away the good in society. It must be ruthlessly eliminated, punishment of offenders being especially valuable as a deterrent to those still unaffected. Heresy was often incurable, and the burning of heretics was necessary when nothing would do but ‘clean cutting out’ of the part infected in order to safeguard the remainder of society. As the highest magistrate under the King, More believed he had a fiduciary duty to this end by virtue of his Chancellor’s oath, and by ‘plain ordinance and statute’.” He would have believed that he was protecting the English people and the country from evil and unrest, just as Mary I did too.

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    Claire Reply:

    John Guy’s article is at http://www.historytoday.com/ja-guy/sir-thomas-more-and-heretics

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  11. The Lord Mayor of London honoured Sir Thomas More this morning at The Tower of London, in the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula. She was chief guest attending the Epiphany Carol Service, accompanied by Sheriffs and guests from the disabled charity, Livability. She wore Sir Thomas More’s historic Chain of Office, allowed only for special occasions, and read one of the lessons. After the service, Lord Mayor Woolf paid homage to his shrine in the Crypt. I live nearby at St Katharine’s and feel so privileged to be able to use the Chapel regularly; what a wonderful extra thrill us all to witness such an important historical event.

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  12. 14th Gr Grandaughter of TM says:

    By today’s standards, burning people and executing people are atrocities. Putting it into perspective though, this was the mid 16th century and violence was a daily occurrence. He also had a job to do and faced execution for treason if he refused. He was actually worried that violence was splitting the country into two because of religion. He’s a product of his times and to be honest, there are far worse examples than Thomas More.

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  13. Jess says:

    More had his flaws. He was no different from Saint Cyril who participated in the murder of the intellectual Hypatia. Saints Ambrose and John who condemned Jews for the “murder” of Christ. Hell, Saint Peter who was the first pope persecuted Christians. God in the Old Testament was intemperate, cruel, and ruthless when things didn’t go His way and Jesus got pissed and flipped tables when he believed His Father’s house was being violated. Point is, even the Divine is flawed.

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